In Latvia, Riga has become a ghost town

The third-poorest country in the EU, Latvia punitive welfare conditions and the exclusion of Russian-speakers from surrounding nations has lead to a depopulation of 30,000 a year.

Early this year, Latvia’s parliament voted to join the eurozone. The country has endured two economic shocks in recent decades – in the early 1990s and in 2008, when it had the deepest recession in the world. Growth and eurozone membership in January 2014 are supposedly the reward.
 
Some measure of Latvians’ real feelings can be taken in the results of the local elections in June, won decisively by the social-democratic Harmony Centre, which ran on an antiausterity platform. Yet Latvian national politics is marked by a division between ethnic Latvians and the Russian speakers – people of Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian descent –who make up a third of the population. Thousands of these are denied citizenship and do not have the right to vote.
 
Harmony Centre is dismissed as a Russian party by the ruling coalition of neoliberals and the far-right National Alliance and remains in opposition, despite winning more seats than any other single party in the 2011 parliamentary election.
 
Latvia is the third-poorest country in the EU; 12.8 per cent of the adult population is unemployed. The dole lasts only nine months. Youth unemployment has almost halved from a peak of 42 per cent in 2010 – but soon the government, apparently following the UK’s lead, plans to turn welfare into workfare, with forced jobs such as road sweeping. The result has been depopulation. Approximately 30,000 people a year are leaving Latvia. Those who migrate are young and often well educated.
 
The effects are visible in the capital, Riga. A few minutes by tram outside the old town, which is showered with public money, a different reality emerges. Areas such as the Moscow District are crammed with crumbling tenements and emptywooden houses; it could be the set for a ghost town in a low-budget western. The dereliction is leavened only by alcohol and second-hand clothes shops. Among this are budget hotels to cater for the stag-party trade, which completely ignores the deprivation all around.
 
Official history is sliding backwards, too, with rising ethnic nationalism leading to events such as the absurd annual commemoration of Latvian Waffen SS divisions as a necessary evil, undertaken to fight the Soviets.
 
The anti-Russian politics is only a veil. Behind it is an attempt to justify privatisation and austerity. Despite its crisis, the eurozone has a special attraction for the former communist countries that have found themselves among the happy few in the EU since 2004. Estonia, Slovakia and Slovenia all joined the euro – this was proof to some that they had finally vanquished the “ghosts of communism” and were showing their true worth.
 
Latvians are often compared favourably with the Greeks as thosewho meekly accepted austerity and are now reaping the rewards. Yet that lack of resistance stemmed from the cynical manipulation of ethnic differences – which is now dividing Latvian society. 
A man walks by a currency exchange in Riga. Photograph: Getty Images.

Agata Pyzik is a Polish writer publishing in Polish and English in many publications in the UK and in Poland, including the Guardian, Frieze and The Wire. Her main interest is (post) communist Eastern Europe, its history, society, art. She's finishing a book on postcommunism called Poor But Sexy for Zero Books. She lives in London and has a blog.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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My latest Brexit worry? What will happen to our footballers

My week, from why we should “keep on running” to mansplaining in the Commons.

It’s a funny old game, politics. Just when you think you’ve got your head round the myriad consequences of the Brexit vote, yet another one springs to mind. This week, I stumbled upon another sector in which Britain leads the world that will be thrown into uncertainty by Brexit: football.

The background of this moment of clarity is that I’ve been trying to rescue a youth centre in my constituency that the council can no longer afford to run. Thankfully, the brilliant New Ferry Rangers want to take it over as their clubhouse. I tell the chair of the FA, Greg Clarke, about our plans.

In doing so, I realise that the European Union’s competition rules apply to the beautiful game, just as they do to every other business sector in the UK. In practical terms, the absence of these continental rules opens up the possibility of changes to who can play, own and broadcast our wonderful yet expensive national game.

“Will Bosman still apply?” a colleague asks me with relish, referring to the 1995 European Court of Justice ruling that allows EU footballers to transfer easily from one club to another. Who knows? Who knows who knows?

 

Three lions on the shirt

The football dilemma is a microcosm of the wider immigration issue. Some imagine that by barring foreign talent from our shores, we will advantage British-born players. If fewer foreigners are allowed to play and English lads get more playing time in the Premier League, perhaps leaving the EU might result in the long-wished-for success for the England national team?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. If you don’t have the skills to play alongside the best in the world, you probably don’t have the skills to beat the best in the world. As the Spanish La Liga and the German Bundesliga have shown, there is no incompatibility in allowing league teams to source great players from around the world and still having your home-grown stars come together to win international tournaments.

The most important intervention is to enable your people to develop the skills that they need to compete. This is as true for football as it is for everything else.

 

Hammond’s gilt trip

It’s Treasury questions in the House of Commons this week, and I want to ask about the cost of British government debt, which dwarfs even the monstrous levels of cash in modern football. It is a bitter irony that, following the global financial crisis that helped the Tories win the 2010 general election, the slow-burn economic crisis that the party has since brought about with David Cameron’s botched referendum has received scant attention. (Particularly in comparison with the Westminster lobby’s anxiety about Labour’s record on debt and the deficit.)

British debt owned by foreign investors has now breached the high-water mark of £500bn, its highest-ever level. As the value of sterling tumbles, we can only wonder what risks may lie ahead, as our creditors watch the value of these investments fall.

The Chancellor responds to me by explaining how gilts work. He doesn’t answer my question at all, however, leaving us all to wonder what horrors the Budget in March might bring. It’s a lovely reminder that I am not immune to mansplaining, even in the House of Commons, and that we call it “parliamentary questions” and not “parliamentary answers”.

It’s also a demonstration of how little economic policymaking is going on. The great nation of John Maynard Keynes, the inventor of global economic institutions that have steadied the world, is now reduced to skulking around Europe, seeking an embarrassing exit from the union that cemented his postwar peace settlement. Once, we led in Europe. Now we follow as the hard right barks its orders.

 

Trading down

Listening to Theresa May’s Brexit speech later on Tuesday, my heart sinks again. She puts paid to the idea that we might stay in the single market. Reducing immigration is her life’s work, apparently. It is a grave error and one that must be resisted. The biggest challenge to our country is not that people are prepared to come to work here and pay their taxes here. New Britons deserve our respect.

 

A sporting chance

On Wednesday, I meet the Speaker to discuss the ongoing work to build on the legacy of our friend Jo Cox.

Through these hard days, I am reminded constantly of two things. First, the words of her brilliant husband, Brendan, who said that we will fight the hate that killed her. Jo never gave up on a monumental challenge, and all our kids need us not to lose heart now. Second, that my experience of Jo was that she focused on the challenge ahead and never wallowed. She was the best of us, and I wish I were more like her.

One thing that Jo and I had in common was that we took part in the annual House of Commons tug of war. Unlike the Premier League, we women of the political world cannot boast world-beating talent in our sport. But we demonstrate the spirit of This Girl Can, Sport England’s campaign to empower women in their sporting endeavours (which returns to our screens soon).

 

Making tracks

While we wrestle in politics with the horrific events that happened last year and the risks ahead, I am trying to demonstrate the This Girl Can spirit and keep up with my physical activity. I would love to be better at football, the sport I adore, but there are not that many opportunities to play, given the parliamentary timetable. So I get up early for a jog along the Thames and tell myself that going slowly is faster than never going at all. Without a doubt, for progressives right now, “Keep on Running” is our theme tune.

Alison McGovern is the MP for Wirral South (Labour)

Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era